New OT law sets managers scrambling

Local employers and law firms are beginning to wrestle with the impact of a labor law change that will require overtime pay for thousands of salaried Maine workers. The new overtime rules, which the Obama administration announced Wednesday, will go into effect Dec. 1. Under the rules, salaried workers must get overtime pay – time-and-a-half after 40 hours – if they earn up to $47,476 a year, double the previous threshold of $23,660. People making more than $47,476 annually, along with managers, professionals and administrators, will not have to be paid overtime. The change will affect an estimated 16,000 workers in Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s about 3 percent of the state’s workforce, and represents only the second increase in the overtime salary ceiling since the 1970s. Read the story.

Unemployment rate holds at 3.4 percent

Maine’s unemployment rate held steady at 3.4 percent in April, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Labor. The unemployment rate was unchanged from March and was down 1.1 percentage points from 4.5 percent in April 2015, the department said. The number of unemployed job-seekers in Maine declined by 8,000 over the previous year to 22,800. The U.S. preliminary unemployment rate of 5 percent was unchanged from March and down from 5.4 percent a year earlier, the department said. Read the story.


Wind farm plans expected to proceed

A proposed 26-turbine wind farm near Moosehead Lake won’t be affected by a change in zoning regulations in the area that allow communities to opt out of a fast-track wind development zone, according to the company proposing the wind farm. Energy company SunEdison, which filed for bankruptcy in April, is still determining the next steps for its proposed Somerset Wind project in the Misery Ridge area near Moosehead Lake, said a company spokesman Thursday. On Tuesday, landowner Weyerhaeuser, a timber company that had agreed to lease land to SunEdison for the project, withdrew its opposition to the community opting out of the state’s expedited wind permitting area, where there are fewer regulations covering wind farms under the Maine Wind Energy Act. An anti-wind energy group that has opposed the project said in a news release Wednesday that Weyerhaeuser’s decision is good news for the area, although a spokesman for the forest management company said it will not have an impact on the proposed wind farm. Read the story.

Failed solar power reforms slow progress on projects

Several Maine communities are reconsidering or shelving plans to build large-scale solar energy projects in the aftermath of a failed bid to reform Maine’s solar regulations. A handful of cities and towns, including Falmouth, Portland, South Portland and Rockland, were planning to install photoelectric panels on top of capped landfills that otherwise have no use. The installations could provide renewable power to municipal buildings, schools and streetlights and reduce municipal electricity costs. However, the projects needed the Legislature to change the way solar producers are compensated for the power they generate and allow larger projects to offset their construction costs. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed that legislation last month, and the Maine Public Utilities Commission will soon consider whether to change the existing system for crediting small-scale solar power generators who feed energy back into the grid. The regulatory challenges and uncertainty about the future have stopped at least one municipal solar project before it got off the ground, and thrown others into limbo. Read the story.


Gas prices expected to spur summer travel

With gasoline prices down over last summer, Americans are planning to hit the road this summer, which is good news for the Maine tourism industry. In a survey of more than 65,000 of its members, GasBuddy, a website and smartphone app that helps consumers find cheap gas, found that more than 75 percent were planning to travel this summer, up 2.2 percent from last year. Not surprisingly, 79 percent of respondents planned to travel by car, according to the company’s annual summer travel study. The local chapter of the American Automobile Association, AAA Northern New England, agreed that gas prices that are lower than last summer will likely spur an increase in people driving to Maine for day trips and overnight vacations. Maine’s price last week was $2.30 per gallon, according to AAA – close to the 2016 high, but 35 cents lower than the $2.65 per gallon of a year ago. Read the story.


Health co-op’s finances improving

Community Health Options, the Maine-based health insurance cooperative, drew down more than $8 million from reserves to cover losses during the first three months of the year, but it was a smaller withdrawal than had been anticipated. The cooperative withdrew $8.4 million from the $43 million it set aside to cover potential losses in 2016 after losing $31 million in 2015, according to a filing with the state. That’s nearly 13 percent less than it expected for the first quarter of the year, said Eric Cioppa, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Insurance, who has the insurer under enhanced scrutiny after last year’s losses. Community Health Options was the only nonprofit cooperative insurer in the nation among those set up as part of the Affordable Care Act to post a profit in 2014, taking in $7 million more than expenses. But it suffered a sharp turnaround last year, posting a loss of $31 million and having to set aside millions in reserves for potential losses this year. Read the story.


Commercial activity index drops

The Maine Real Estate & Development Association’s MEREDA Index, a semi-annual measure of the strength of Maine’s commercial real estate market, is down compared with the fall and spring of 2015, the association said Tuesday. The MEREDA Index for spring 2016 is 91, compared with 100 in fall 2015 and 110 in spring 2015, the association said. Prior to that, the index, which was first published in spring 2013, had not topped 80, MEREDA said. An index score of 100 would be roughly equal to the market’s 2006 peak in terms of construction employment and the total value and square footage of properties sold. MEREDA said in a news release that the index was unusually high during the two prior periods because of two huge commercial real estate deals in downtown Portland: the $35 million sale of 100 Middle St. in March 2015 and the $66 million sale of One and Two Portland Square in April 2015. Read the story.


Engineering firm helps build battle bot

The twins who co-founded Howe & Howe Technologies in Waterboro say their contribution to a 16-foot-tall, chainsaw-wielding, cigar-chomping battle robot will help the United States achieve a glorious victory in its first-ever clash with a metal monster from Japan. The company will be creating the mobility system of the device – which looks like its part Transformer, part tank – to achieve speeds of up to 15 mph, a five-fold increase over the bot’s first prototype. The metal monster is expected to engage in distance and hand-to-hand battle with a competitor from Japanese robotics firm, Suidobashi Heavy Industry, later this year. Read the story.


Maine’s population remains essentially unchanged

New census estimates show the population of Maine is staying essentially flat, with small gains in the southern suburbs offsetting losses in the northern cities. The estimated population of Maine was 1,329,328 in July 2015, a year-over-year decline of 928 people, according to the American Community Survey, an annual statistical snapshot conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. But that is 967 more people, about one-tenth of 1 percent, than Maine had in 2010, the last time the government did a hard-count census of its residents. Cumberland County, which hosts Portland and its suburbs, accounted for eight out of the 10 Maine communities with populations that grew the most, numerically. Windham added the most – 815 people – from 2010 to 2015, a 4.8 percent increase that raised its total count to 17,816. Falmouth, Gorham, Scarborough and Portland round out the list of five communities that added the most people over the five-year period. Read the story.